Japan’s ‘shinkansen’ trains

It is ironic that Japan, a nation now avowed to maintaining peace within its constitution, named one of its most spectacular modes of transport, and indeed tourist attractions, after ammunition. Of course it refers to its speed, but the ‘bullet train’ in Japan is also the most tranquil, efficient, pleasurable and good value way to get around the country.
In fairness, it is English speakers who have nicknamed these impressively high speed railway lines ‘bullet trains’, as they travel at maximum speeds of 240-320km per hour. The Japanese word is shinkansen, which actually means, ‘New Trunk Line’. Although not so new because the Japanese were on the right track as far back as 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, with the first line in this network opening up between Tokyo and Osaka. At that time the journey took four hours. Today it takes two hours and 20 minutes.
The Shinkansen network now extends throughout the length of Japan which, when you look at it on a map, captures the image perfectly of a key artery pumping energy from north to south and back again, with one beautiful vein stretching west through the central Hida Mountain Range, also known as the Japanese Alps. This one leads you straight to the heart of traditional, rural Japan.

On this route, like so much of Japan, you travel in chic, state of the art design technology into a world such as Nagano City, home to the world famous Zenko-ji Buddhist temple, or Joshin'etsukogen National Park where traditional villages, ryokan inns and exceptional artisans still thrive.
In fact, it is the tradition of delicate design that has informed the much coveted look of Japan’s Shinkansen trains over the years. This latest Hokuriku Shinkansen extension, mentioned above, which goes all the way to the west coast at Kanazawa in two-and-a-half hours from Tokyo, was designed by Japanese Kiyoyuki Okuyama, also famously the first non-Italian to design for Ferrari. Beautifully streamlined for environmentally friendly purposes, the body of the train is sky blue in colour, to represent the azure skies of the mountains and coast, combined with a copper colour, which represents the fine Japanese tradition of inlaid copper art.
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This combination of top technology and recognition of both cultural and natural heritage is what most people are looking for when they travel to Japan. You can hike on the long distance, ancient Nakasendo Walking Trail as far as Magome, for example, and then bite the bullet and be whisked all the way to another world of Kyoto. Or go on a family vacation, starting with the buzz of Tokyo, with highlights such as the Tsukiji Fish Market, the manga comic studio, a sumo practice arena or the famous Ghibli animation studio. Followed by a bullet train to Hakone National Park for a volcanic virtuosity of hot springs, sulphur pools and stunning scenery. And children just love these mean machines.

The fact that nearly all vacations in Japan, whether a self-guided walking vacation or small group cultural adventure, will take you on the train is testament to their greatness. We can’t think of any country in the world where trains are so central to vacations, and that is thanks to the efficiency, speed and price. Just get your Japanese Rail Pass (around £200 for 7 days of unlimited travel in Japan) before you go – your tour operator should be able to help or to organise it for you, as you can’t get it once you are there. And when you arrive, you can forget highways and hire cars. Just get into train mode. And go in peace.

Wheelchair accessible travel

Japan’s bullet trains have defined spaces in each carriage for wheelchair users, and private ‘multipurpose’ rooms as well as wheelchair accessible toilets. Assistance with boarding is available at every station. Simply get the attention of a staff member and they will accompany you to your platform with a ramp, then call ahead to your destination to make sure there’s someone to help you off on arrival. Most stations also have priority lifts for wheelchair users.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: megawheel360] [Shinkansen: Ankur P] [Hokuriku Shinkansen : I Hokuriku]